Cardinals Rule

A month ago, the cardinals returned to the backyard, the red males puffing out their breasts and the tan and red females flitting through the bushes.  They seemed busier than ever, flashing red, singing songs, chasing tail.  Last week, our large puppy Nimbus and I were sniffing around the backyard, further back than Nimbus had yet roamed.  Nimbus surprised herself as she discovered the back fence.  Sharp metal met curious snout, and a large cardinal flew towards the fence on the other side.  I was amused and surprised. Nimbus was afraid, and then curious, and then predatory.  The bright red cardinal looked as shocked as the overgrown puppy, and they each flew away as they could.  This little flirtation with my own backyard produced in me a much-needed belly laugh.

The next morning, I went to see one of my favorite people in the world, the person who cuts and dyes my hair and has done so for years.  This woman and my brother Matt are two of the most natural comedians I’ve ever met, and I have always loved that they crack themselves up as much as they amuse their interlocutors.  As I did the public disrobing—glasses tucked away, earrings out, sweater off–, I noticed a small, stuffed cardinal on the hairdresser’s station.  “What’s up with the cardinal?” I asked.  “Nothing, really.  They’re supposed to represent a sudden appearance of loved ones who have passed.”  Well, I had never heard that before, and I immediately thought of my friend/hairdresser’s loss of a dear nephew and how comforting the thought of a cardinal could be.

Now that I’ve googled “cardinal” and learned all the things the internet will tell me about the cardinal (for example, it is the state bird of several states, and its population is not in danger), I see that the sense of comfort for the loss of loved ones is a top hit on the search engine.  I’m always amazed at how not in the know I am.  The “All About Birds” website tells us this about the Northern Cardinal: “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.”  I was only going to copy and paste a line of this, but the description of the sights and sounds of cardinals proved irresistible.  This idea that cardinals stay beautiful and stay put, whistling while they work, makes them close to ideal for representations of loved ones who have passed.

I’m not at all religious, don’t believe in the afterlife, and usually pooh-pooh signs and symbols that imply this kind of belief.  (I want to make clear that I admire and respect others’ engagement with these spiritual questions. I was not raised in faith and still find it an unnatural posture for myself.)  Not so last Thursday. I was all in.  I mean, how many cardinals do you come across in an 18-hour span?  The whole family, the surprise single cardinal, and then the stuffed fellow at the work station.  It was too much.  The cardinal at the back fence had to be my mother; he just had to.  He had to be telling me something, anything, so that I could make sense of three random but interconnected events.  But, nope, there was no celestial message, no pithy remark, no profound advice.  Just a fence and a laugh.  Maybe that’s all we get on some days, and it is enough.

I think my mother would find it deliciously ironic that we got a puppy, at my insistence, so that I could walk briskly for miles with a dog who wanted to walk, only to find that walking the dog ignited every arthritic wick in my shoulder.  Now I dutifully pee and poop the dog in the backyard, while the less enthusiastic amblers in the family are left to trot the energetic gal around the neighborhood.  I’m very much reminded of the one misbegotten adventure my family had with a dog when I was young.  My mother most assuredly did not want another critter to care for, especially not beyond the seven children (eight born in eight years) she was already bathing, feeding, chauffeuring, teaching, scolding, and shepherding.  The energetic puppy we adopted back then ended up, by our mother’s mandate, on seven daily walks—one with each child around our big block—to tire him out.  I imagine the first three or four spins around the block were fun and the last three or four were forced marches, but I don’t remember too well.  The canine experiment lasted under four months.  Back at my house now, I just imagine my mother shaking her cardinal head, thinking, “Well, kid, you wanted a dog.  Put your arthritic shoulder to the wheel.”  And then I pick up more poop, toss it in a can, and move on.

But what of this need to understand the cardinal as something?  The need to create the equation, cardinal = loved one. Of course, our reckoning with mortality inspires terror, sadness, nostalgia, tenderness—many of the emotions on the wintry side of life.  Last week, my Intro to Spanish literature students grappled with Miguel de Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” trying to understand a village priest who busily keeps his parishioners believing while he himself does not trust in the notion of the afterlife.  This week, we read many poems by Antonio Machado, digging into the sights, sounds, and textures of rural landscapes and their invocations of memory, longing, and death.  This poem in particular struck the students as stark:  Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos / Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita / son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos / para aguardar… Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.  Loosely translated: We sat one day at the edge of the forest path / Our life is only time, and our only preoccupation / is the desperate position we occupy / to await… But She will not miss the date.  For my students, this frank confrontation with death at our door appears premature and unnecessary.  For me, there is something comforting about it, something that reminds us of the universality of passing, of the need to read into (maybe even over-read) the cardinal’s sudden appearance or constant presence.  Surely, with others’ recent losses heaped on top of my own, I feel more keenly aware of the collective fragility and beauty of it all, and of the eternal need for poetry.

On some days, you just let the cardinals rule.

Seven Words

(Photograph taken at a YMCA in Virginia.)

I took this photo a month or two ago at my daughter’s swim meet, held at the YMCA of a small Virginia city.  Of course, I know that the “Y” is a Christian organization, no problem.  At our local Y, there is a “scripture bowl” on the counter—also not a problem because everyone can sign up or not, read the scripture quotes or not.  Nevertheless, I was struck by how this quote from Corinthians, a quote displayed in the entryway and framing the experience you’ll have inside the Y, privileges faith over knowledge.  Sight, or knowledge, doesn’t supersede faith; sight doesn’t even walk alongside faith; sight is erased, eliminated as a way of knowing and existing in the world.  In my own naïve conceptualization of the world, I still do not understand how some religious, faith-based folks choose to ignore millennia of beautiful and useful discoveries, one built on top of the next, helping human beings to live, survive, and understand in more complex ways the world around us.  Shouldn’t we consider this sight, or knowledge, part and parcel of the wonder of the world, which I assume is captured in faith?  I ruminate on this here in order to grapple with the Trump administration’s imposed censorship, a move which seems to move a nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state to faith-based language, rather than evidence-based or science-based language, in official governmental contexts.

Not only have we been hit this week by the Senate Republicans’ passage of the tax scam, but also by news that the Trump administration has prohibited the use of seven words in official documents being prepared for the 2018 budget.  These seven words are DIVERSITY, ENTITLEMENT, EVIDENCE-BASED, FETUS, SCIENCE-BASED, TRANSGENDER, and VULNERABLE.  A few things I like about these words are: (1) they are words that we get to use how and whenever the hell we want; (2) “diversity” might remind some people that there are other people in the world who might be unlike them; (3) “entitlement” recalls that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (4) “evidence-based” and “science-based” demonstrate the profound power of scientific research and its importance for the well-being of human beings and the earth; (5) “fetus” distinguishes between beings that cannot survive outside a uterus and those that can; (6) “transgender” ruptures notions of binary approaches to sex and gender; (7) “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word for “wounding” and thus exposes the extent to which certain populations can be harmed in the face of dangerous policies, procedures, and tax bills. Think about it: the prohibition of these seven words provides linguistic evidence (oops, sorry, just call it “proof”) of the Trump administration’s fear of those who live in disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions, non-Christians, people not born in the United States, people of color born in the United States, people who refuse binary gender categories, women and their wombs, science and scientists, and the Earth.

The Washington Post gives specifics about the challenges for some agencies and departments in avoiding these terms that define some or much of the work they do: “At the CDC, several offices have responsibility for work that uses some of these words. The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention is working on ways to prevent HIV among transgender people and reduce health disparities. The CDC’s work on birth defects caused by the Zika virus includes research on the developing fetus.”  Can you imagine being an expert on, say, socioeconomic disparities and not being allowed to use the word “socioeconomic” or “disparity” in your research?  Let’s say you treat patients with prostate cancer, but you’ve been forbidden from saying either “prostate” or “cancer.”  I think our federal government has become a veritable poetry workshop as it asks us to use metaphor, simile, metonymy, and other rhetorical devices instead of precise terms for important concepts.  Kudos to Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon, who have captured this idea through their CDC Poetry Project.  If the past year has taught us nothing else, we have learned that we have to signal every single day the lies and hypocrisies of our government officials.  I am particularly struck by Trump’s, DeVos’, and Sessions’ calls to increased free speech, especially on college campuses, even as the administration prohibits the use of precise language in federal departments whose work affects us all. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on free speech.)

Last night I attended the town hall meeting of Virginia House Delegate Ben Cline.  We are all grateful to Delegate Cline for continuing to hold town hall meetings, especially in light of a five-year chase to find Representative Bob Goodlatte anywhere in the federal district he represents.  As Goodlatte steps down (only a couple of decades after he promised to), and Ben Cline plans to run for his seat, we can only hope that the one good thing Cline has going for him—a willingness to listen to and speak with all of his constituents—remains intact.  While Cline certainly has not started to censor language, he has transported his religious beliefs to the center of his legislative motivations and work.  When asked why his keenness for deregulation in business and jobs doesn’t translate to a deregulation in the control of women’s bodies, Cline could only reply, “Well, I’m pro-life.”  This reply, bald and unelaborated, basically tells his constituents, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

At this point, many of our government representatives are using the United States Constitution as a weapon against the people they have been elected to represent.  Freedom of speech expands hate speech rights (and, I would argue, subsequent acts of violence) and, in the case of this week’s CDC news, reduces freedom of expression in a whole host of realms.  The events of Charlottesville tell us that the freedom to assemble is only for selected groups, and the right to bear arms enhances the public power of those selected groups.  Freedom of religion is supposed to protect us from one, singular, state-imposed religion, but in fact we have become a Christian state, with real repercussions for those who choose to walk by another faith, or by no faith, or by a combination of faith and knowledge.  It’s time for our elected officials to recognize diversity, including among transgender individuals, embrace appropriate entitlements, understand vulnerability, take stock in evidence-based and science-based research, and give science-based context to the term ‘fetus.’